Two Juneau School Board members will have no trouble being elected to their seats next Tuesday – they’re both unopposed.
Lisa Worl was appointed in December to fill a board vacancy. Barbara Thurston is seeking re-election after serving one term on the board.
Before Thurston ran for office, she sometimes attended school board meetings.
“And I wanted to be one of the ones sitting at the table discussing the issues.”
So she ran for office in 2010. After three years of lots of meetings, homework and budget reductions, it’s still an interesting job and the learning curve is steep.
“It’s taken most of the last three years to know what’s going on and what to expect.”
But the 47-year-old mother of two had more experience than most who run for the board. She’s an actuary for Alaska Public Entity Insurance, which provides insurance coverage and risk management services for school districts and municipal governments outside of Juneau.
“I came in with a baseline of knowledge,” she says, “but I think the most important part of the job is an interest and a willingness to read and to listen and to figure things out.”
Since Thurston’s been on the board, she’s seen the district budget shrink about 10 percent. The majority of school funding comes from the state. In recent years the amount per student, known as the Base Student Allocation, has remained the same, “but expenses are going up, so flat funding is essentially a cut,” she says.
School districts don’t know their allocation until the state legislature adjourns in April; they’re required to submit a budget to their local government by the end of March. Districts continue to lobby lawmakers for future funding.
“There were a few years when the legislature passed a three-year budget. It makes it easier both in terms of our internal budget, it makes it easier for negotiating with our teachers and other unions because we have some idea of what’s coming in next year,” she says.
For the last two years, she’s been chair of the committee that crafted the spending plan. It grew to 17 members last spring, including 10 from the community. She says they brought important information to the table.
She expects the budget-building process to be similar next year as the board attempts to balance the core mission – teaching – with all the other programs the district offers, to answer this question:
“If we spend a hundred thousand doing this or a hundred thousand doing that, which one is more likely to benefit kids? “
The district has made “substantial cuts in everything from administration and activities and pretty small cuts to actual teachers, because that’s the core of our schools,” she says. “I’d like to keep it at that; it gets harder and harder.”
The school board faces other challenging issues and Thurston wants another term to work on increasing the graduation rate, the number of students who qualify for state performance scholarships, and creating a new vision for Juneau’s two regular high schools. She expects that to come up this fall.
“We had a five-year plan when we opened Thunder Mountain and that officially ended in 2012, and where are we now? The schools don’t exactly look like that five-year plan said they were going to look and that’s not necessarily bad. But it’s time for another five-year or something plan to say here’s our vision for our schools,” she says.
Barbara Thurston and her husband John moved to Juneau 23 years ago. Their son recently graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School and their daughter is a JDHS sophomore.